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The Power of the Shofar

As the day of Rosh Hashanah nears, the great Day of Judgment on which our fate for the coming year is decided, it is worth taking some time to contemplate the nature of the day, and the nature of the judgment we are due to face.

On the one hand, as befitting a court of judgment, the prayers of Rosh Hashanah make no mention of teshuvah: There is no confession of sin, and no expression of regret thereof. That which is done is done, and there is no place for “saying sorry” in the Divine court of law.

On the other hand, we cannot come before the Divine Judge in the merit of our righteousness and good deeds. As we mention continually over the selichos period, our merits are few and far between, and our human failings place our goodness in the shade. In the daily recited words, we knock on the doors of Heaven “destitute and impoverished,” ashamed and even mortified by our deeds.

How, then, are we to approach the judgment? What hope do we have?

To Cry or not to Cry

The Vilna Gaon (cited in Maaseh Rav 207) used to forbid the shedding tears on the day of Rosh Hashanah. As a festival day, expressions of grief and anguish are prohibited.

Moreover, the Vilna Gaon based this instruction on the words of the verse (Nechemyah 8:9): “The day is holy for Hashem, our G-d; do not mourn and do not cry, for the people cried as they heard the words of Torah.”

Yet, citing from the great Arizal, the Kaf Hachayim (528:60) writes of how the holy Ari spared no tear during the Rosh Hashanah service, crying profusely throughout. Furthermore, he declared that not being overcome by tears on Rosh Hashanah [and Yom Kippur] was an ill omen, indicating a certain blemish of the soul.

Coming to set the tone of the day ahead, the legacy left us by our spiritual leaders is therefore somewhat confusing. The great Ari on the one hand stressed the importance of shedding tears on Rosh Hashanah, whereas the Vilna Gaon taught that doing so was prohibited.

Even without the teachings of our leaders, the mood swing between the awe of the prayers and the semi-celebratory atmosphere of the day is somewhat hard to reconcile. How are these contrary teachings and nuances resolved as outshoots of a single essence?

Din and Rachamim

Commenting on the name “Elokim” which appears in connection with the creation of the world, Rashi (Bereishis 1:1) explains that Hashem’s original intention was to create the world with the attribute of Din, strict judgment. Seeing, however, that the world “did not stand,” (meaning, the foundation of Din could not provide the world with continued existence), Hashem merged the attribute of Rachamim (compassion) together with Din.

It is important to realize that the merging of Rachamim with Din does not mean to retract the original intention to create the world on the foundation of Din. Indeed, it is specifically the attribute of Din, whereby a person gets that which he deserves, which allows us to earn our portion for the World to Come. The world, as the Mishna in Avos (1:17) teaches, continues to stand on legs of Din.

Rather than spoiling the purity or the completeness of Din, the merger of Rachamim was required so that the attribute of Din itself should be able to fulfill its true purpose. Without Rachamim, a sin against the Creator would result in instant destruction. This, ultimately, is contrary to the fundamental reason for the creation of the world on Din: to permit Man to earn the goodness of the World to Come (based on Ramchal; see Mesilas Yesharim Chap. 1; Daas Tevunos in several places).

Thus only through Rachamim can the world continue to exist in spite of sin, allowing Man a chance to fulfill the will of Hashem in his future ways. Ultimately however, Din is fulfilled to the ultimate degree. In the words of Chazal (Bereishis Rabba 67:4), “[Hashem] extends His wrath, and takes that which is His.” The world is granted continued existence, but the final accounting is no less precise.

A Day of Re-creation

The interplay of Din and Rachamim central to the beginning of the Creation is also the basic theme underlying the day of Rosh Hashanah.

We mention in the davening that Rosh Hashanah is “the day of the beginning of Your deeds, a commemoration of the first day.” Although Tana’im debate when the world was actually created (Rosh Hashanah 10b), Tosafos explain that the opinion that the world was created in Nissan agrees that the “plan” for creation was devised in Tishrei.

Every year, Rosh Hashanah thus marks the ‘re-creation’ of the world. Fittingly, the main theme of the day is Din. As the day of creation, Rosh Hashanah is also the Day of Judgment. And as the Day of Judgment, Rosh Hashanah also incorporates an element of compassion—for there is no Din without Rachamim.

It appears that this is the secret of the duality of the day. On the one hand, it is a day of awe, a day of fearful judgment, a day worthy of tears. On the other hand, however, it is a day of creation, a day of compassion, on which we merit the joy of re-creation.

Transfer from Din to Rachamim

Unlike the initial creation of the world, Chazal reveal that the Rachamim of Rosh Hashanah depends on our own deeds:

“When Hashem ascends and sits on the throne of judgment (Din), He ascends with strict judgment, for, as it states, “G-d has ascended with a blast.” When the Children of Israel take their shofaros and blow in front of Hakodosh Boruch Hu, He rises from His throne of judgment and sits on the throne of mercy, as the verse continues, “Hashem with the sound of the shofar” (Pesikta 23:3; Vayikra Rabba 29:10).

The difference between Elokim, the Divine Name that denotes strict judgment, and Hashem, the Name that denotes compassion and mercy, is the sound of the shofar.

True, nobody can stand before the strict and exacting judgment of Hashem, before whom all things are known, all failings exposed. On Rosh Hashanah we have nothing to say in our merit; whatever we say will only make things worse. Yet, we have the sound of the shofar—a wordless sound emanating from the depth of our soul, declaring a “readiness” that no words can articulate.

In a world of sin and iniquity, our worthiness of Divine compassion (Rachamim) is contingent on a declaration of commitment latent in the sounding of the shofar.

Crying and Rejoicing With the Shofar

The focus of the Rosh Hashanah prayers is malchus shamayim, the Divine Kingdom whose revelation we so anticipate.

As noted above, we do not, aside for a number of later additions, pray for Divine compassion; nor do we pray for all things worldly, or for any individual wish. Rather, our prayers transcend the personal, concentrating on our underlying national purpose: The revelation of Hashem in the world (see Yeshayahu 21:43), and, ultimately, of the Divine Kingdom.

Insofar as we align ourselves with our purpose as Jews, and, in a broader sense, as human beings, we become worthy of the Rachamim that grants the world continual existence. This ‘alignment’ is achieved by the focus on malchus shamayim, on the recognition, by all of humanity, of the sovereignty of Hashem over the world. In a still deeper sense, it is achieved by the sounding of the shofar.

Concerning all three basic parts of the Rosh Hashanah prayer service—malchiyos, zichronos, and shofaros—the Gemara (Rosh Hashanah 16a) states that our prayers must be accompanied by the shofar. Indeed, one ancient custom, which is still practiced by certain communities, was to sound the shofar during the individual mussaf prayer.

By blowing the shofar, by giving sound to the very breath of our lives, we declare our innermost commitment to Hashem. Our deeds may have strayed offline, but our inner self, our commitment to the purpose that defines us, remain unstained. By virtue of this declaration—if it is made sincerely—Hashem stands from the throne of judgment, and sits on the throne of compassion.

The day of Rosh Hashanah is termed Yom Teru’ah by the Torah, literally a “Day of Sounding the Shofar.” Although we do not sound the shofar for the duration of the day, its sound remains the central theme.

On the one hand, we ‘cry’ with the shofar (the Gemara explains that the sound of the shofar resembles a crying person), reaching the deepest crevice of our persons in the terrible gravity of the moment. On the other, we rejoice with it, in voicing our inner purpose, expressing the intimate relationship with Hashem that cannot be broken. We cry and we rejoice with the shofar.

In its merit, we are worthy of another year of life.

The Power of the Shofar

The sound of the shofar has the power to bring our deeds in line with it. The Rambam (Teshuvah 3:4) teaches:

Even though sounding the shofar on Rosh Hashanah is a decree of the pasuk, nevertheless, it possesses a hidden message. Awaken O sleepers from your sleep, and tired ones from your slumber; arise from your slumber and search your deeds, repent and remember your Creator…. Better your ways and your actions, so that each one should leave the evil of his ways and the iniquity of his thoughts.

Latent in the sound of the shofar is the power of change. A little like the ‘reset button’ that we know from modern gadgets, the sound of the shofar can bring us back to the just ways that we have departed from.

It is somewhat striking that on the first two of the Days of Repentance, we make no mention of sin and iniquity. How can we repent without even mentioning the misdeeds we wish to repent upon? The answer is the shofar.

On the first of the Days of Repentance, we allow the inner connection that each Jew has with Hashem to shine forth. Thus we merit a favorable judgment for the coming year. And thus we begin a new course, bringing the curves of our lives back to the straightness that Hashem created (Koheles 7:29).

All we need to do is to blow—and to hear the sound we blow.

Wishing all readers a kesivah vechasimah tovah—for life, for joy, for learning, and for peace.

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